Library of Congress > Collections > Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting

Historical Depth and Change

By Robert S. McCarl, III

Watson Machine International is probably the oldest continuously operated manufacturing firm in Paterson. Founded in 1845, it fabricates and refurbishes a variety of machines used in the wire, cable, and fiber-optics industries; some of its earliest products were machines used in the textile industry.1 The company is a microcosm of American industrial development. From its founding by two British immigrants in 1845, it has continuously adjusted its production (and therefore its work force and work culture) to meet changing markets. In chronological order, its products have ranged from cast turbine wheels, to prefabricated iron bridges, to twining machines, to cable-twisting machinery, to wire-twisting machinery (for bridge, nautical, and construction work), to electronics, and, finally, to fiber optics.2

Throughout the evolution from twine to cable to wire and fiber optics, Watson Machine itself has evolved in three major ways: physically, spatially, and culturally. Accordingly, recent changes—the closure of the forge, the consolidation of the machine shops, and the adoption of international standards of measurement and organization—have generated changes in work techniques, shifts in the responsibilities of engineers and salesmen, and alterations in the work culture.

Probably the most important stabilizing influence during these transitions has been the Watson family's close relationship to the company. Another major source of stability has been the continuity in two aspects of production, the high quality and the mechanical similarity of much of the machinery made in the plant. Thus while Watson machines (such as twiners, bunchers, wire take-offs and pay-offs) have changed to adapt to new materials, from twine to fiber-optic cable, their basic mechanisms have remained largely the same.3 And the high quality of the machines enhances the company's revenues both because the machines' characteristic longevity is an important selling point, and because the fact that the machines are long-lasting means that owners commonly send older models back to Watson Machine for repair and retrofitting.

The history of Watson Machine contains many points of interest. Its roots are planted in the nineteenth-century period when Paterson rose to prominence as a manufacturing center, yet by virtue of its adaptation to changing market conditions over the years, it currently exemplifies the latest trends in custom production of high-tech products for an international marketplace. In addition, undoubtedly because the firm has been in the Watson family for several generations, Watson Machine has a deep interest in its own history. Such interest is often found in family-run enterprises, where a long history is used as a marketing device and as a means of intensifying family members' pride in their involvement with the business.4

1. Over the years, the firm has evolved to meet changing needs. By the 1850s, it was casting enormous turbine water wheels and structural iron bridges. In 1875, it received a contract to develop machinery for the new McCormick harvester. In 1907, at the start of the American automobile industry, Watson began producing the Watson Conover Automobile. (Return to Text)

2. "Twining machines" are devices that take several strands of twine and twist them together to form rope. (Return to Text)

3. A "buncher" is a machine that takes single strands of wire, draws them inside the machine, and then twists them together to form a cable or electrical wire. A "take-off" is a device used to reel in completed cable as it comes off a buncher or a strander. A "pay-off" is a device used to support spools of wire being supplied to a buncher. (Return to Text)

4. This sort of marketing implies that products and services sold by family businesses are invested with special qualities by virtue of firms' longevity, continuity of tradition, and sustained commitment to high standards. The marketing of kinship and other elements of family businesses are discussed in James F. Abrams, "It's Just Like Being at Home": The Structure and Style of Folklore in Philadelphia's Family Businesses, Philadelphia Folklore Project Working Paper No. 3 (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Folklore Project, 1989). (Return to Text)

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Industrial Vernacular

In his book Made in America, John Kouwenhoven has described the importance of what he calls the American vernacular: the blending of skill and resources in North America with labor markets and expertise drawn from a variety of international sources.5 This vernacular, or blending, he argues, resulted in such seminal inventions as the cotton gin, the flat-hulled steamboat, the double-bit axe, and the repeating firearm. Watson machines — both those patented by the company and those used informally by workers in the plant — reveal changes in the way in which the vernacular has been expressed in Paterson. During the 1930s or 1940s, a Watson machinist, Al Gardner, and an engineer, Gordon Van Vleet, collaborated to design and build a traverse-screw machine that automatically cuts the long circular traverse screw still used in many Watson machines to guide a wire-holding jig.6 Though never patented, the traverse-screw machine is in continuous use today even though the state-of-the-art cybernetic machinery it supports hardly resembles the plug-and-gear Watson Machine bunchers and stranders of an earlier era.7

This vernacular process — hands-on craftsmanship and innovation used to solve design and engineering problems in machine-tool construction — is perhaps one of the most important aspects of the trade to document in more detail and present to outside audiences. Certainly, the number of workers, the reliance upon more sophisticated electronics, and the necessity for companies such as Watson Machine to build some machines (such as the Kinrei buncher) on an international basis have changed the machine trade.8 Nevertheless, industrial craftsmanship and control by individual machinists still exists in the machine-tool industry at Watson Machine, and it deserves particular attention in future documentation efforts.

5. James A. Kouwenhoven, Made in America: The Arts in Modern Civilization (New York: Octagon Books, 1975). (Return to Text)

6. A "traverse screw" is a device used to guide a jig that lays wire down evenly as it is taken up on a reel or spool. (Return to Text)

7. A "strander" is a machine, loaded with spools of wire, that twists strands together to form a cable or electrical wire. (Return to Text)

8. A "Kinrei buncher" is a buncher manufactured in Japan by the Kinrei Corporation and then custom-adapted by Watson Machine to fit domestic requirements. (Return to Text)

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Work, Family, and Home

Despite recent changes that militate against generational depth in Watson Machine's work force, there are still many workers — such as the Kuehns, the Buonfortes, and Ian Watson McLaughlin himself — who have deep family roots at the plant and in Paterson's machine-tool industry. Newcomers who do not have relatives in the plant extend their workplace expertise into the home in other ways, often in connection with recreational and economic pursuits. For example, machinist Larry Schneider uses a machine shop at his home not only to do piece work for Watson Machine on the weekends, but also to keep the engine of his restored drag racer in top working condition. By demonstrating his work skills in the context of his home he not only enhances his own income and recreational interests, but directly acquaints family, friends, and relatives with his occupational skills andvalues.

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Worker Camaraderie and Solidarity

The increasing heterogeneity of the Watson work force in recent years, particularly its ethnic diversity, and the long commutes required for suburban living have reduced some of the camaraderie and solidarity that previous generations of workers shared. Company-centered social events, such as the lavish company picnic Watson Machine used to hold every year, have fallen by the wayside. While workers still share various skills and critical frames during the workday, at the end of the day most return to a variety of suburban neighborhoods rather than to nearby Paterson neighborhoods. They tend to cultivate social connections therefore not through work but through recreational associations: antique car clubs, ethnic organizations, religious groups, civic associations, and the like. Involvement with such groups appears to absorb much of the energy that workers used to devote to working-class solidarity. The reason probably has as much to do with demographics as with class and economics. That is, the dispersal of the work force throughout the region is as responsible for its fragmentation as is a relatively high (but still non-union) wage and associated class expectations.

Next: Gender
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Gender

The culture of gender at Watson Machine is almost exclusively male. While women fill some of the firm's professional and support positions, the workshop floor is still a male subculture. One of its most interesting features is the way in which generational identity and ethnicity cut across gender orientations in determining appropriate male worldview and activity. Pin-up photos and girlie magazines are kept at individual work stations, though they are usually concealed within a tool box or behind a pillar. Displayed much more prominently are photographs of workers' children, wives, and families. Lunch breaks reveal other interesting generational differences. For example, many of the older machinists watch the local television news reports and comment upon the almost daily barrage of violent crimes, while middle-aged workers tend to eat with members of their work area or ethnic group. Much of the discussion focuses on recreational activities that are considered to be male-dominated: hunting, fishing, and the like.

According to Angelo Basileo, a machinist who worked at Watson Machine for forty years, male-only activities were organized in the past. For example, he describes elaborate male retreats, held in the Catskills, where groups of machinists cooked meals, drank, played cards, and pursued outdoor activities, sometimes with mid- and upper-level management attending and footing the bill. These practices ceased, however, during the seventies and eighties, when Watson Machine was losing its competitive edge and a lot of the old-timers either retired or were forced out of the company.

Listen

Angelo Basileo: "We used to have a sort of club. We would all chip and go bowling, just to pass the time."

Next: Ethnicity
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Ethnicity

Watson Machine's work force has become truly multicultural as well as multinational. Since World War II, a group that once consisted mainly of men of German, Italian, and Eastern-European descent has given way to representatives of ethnic groups with roots in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and a number of Spanish-speaking countries. Because of seniority, ethnic enclaves have developed in the shop. For example, workers whose background is European have become concentrated in the lathe, tool, and assembly areas; and significant numbers of Hispanics and African Americans are found in production and support positions.

For virtually everyone at Watson Machine, ethnicity is, as Michael M. J. Fischer suggests, both a private and a public project.9 For example, Rafael Nivar, a Dominican-American, Willie Reed, an African American, and Omar Abukharma, a Palestinian-American, all make choices about the personal and public representations of their ethnic identities. On the shop floor, most discussions of ethnicity are anecdotal and stereotypical and often result in joking behavior linked to such things as food, media depictions of a particular ethnic individual or group, or actual ethnic jokes. The more serious, private aspect of an individual's ethnic concerns are played out in Paterson's ethnic clubs, restaurants, and churches, and it is there that one must go to determine the primary collective concerns of the city's ethnic subcultures. Perhaps the most pragmatic view of ethnicity in a workplace such as Watson Machine is that as long as daily tensions and ethnocentric impulses are aired in a public, joking manner, a kind of collective equilibrium can be maintained.

9. Michael M. J. Fischer, "Ethnicity and the Post-Modern Arts of Memory," in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus (New York: Verso Press, 1986), 195-6. (Return to Text)

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Neighborhood

As both a structure and an inhabited space, Watson Machine occupies a significant position within its Railroad Avenue neighborhood. To the west, it attaches an industrial presence to the downtown core and the city and federal buildings that occupy that space; to the east, the vibrant 21st Avenue area and the old but still active Joseph Teshon, Inc., textile mill link Watson Machine to, respectively, an emergent Hispanic neighborhood and an important vestige of the city's industrial past. In the direction of Grand Avenue, Watson Machine is surrounded by textile plants, though the raised bed of the railroad impedes direct access to them. From the viewpoint of the workers at Watson Machine, the plant's location is a liability. They consider the neighborhood to be fairly rough, and although Watson Machine does not run shifts at night, many workers have stories of the urban crime and violence that they have experienced on their way to or from work.

Workers who live outside Paterson, especially former residents of the city, have a nostalgic yet negative view of Paterson. Those old enough to remember the city's halcyon days recall its fine shops and restaurants; younger workers relate similar reminiscences they have heard from their parents or grandparents. Whether young or old, it is probably fair to say, the workers do not view Paterson as an appealing urban center that compels them to remain after work during the week or to visit on weekends. They have virtually no interaction with the neighborhood immediately surrounding Watson Machine, and they pride themselves on the speed and efficiency with which they can enter and exit the city.

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Conclusion

The research conducted at Watson Machine provides insights into the importance of developing ethnographic, or insider, perspectives on the changing skills and expectations of workers in the machine-building trade. In addition, this concentrated study of specific work techniques — machining a gear, retrofitting an electrical system for a buncher, or designing a jig to measure thread depths for a strander — also grounds historical change in personal experience. By listening to skilled workers, one better understands how wider national and international economic change leads, for example, to an increase in the demand for fiber-optic machinery (rather than cable-twisting machines), and how, in turn, the production of these machines requires the juxtaposition of traditional knowledge and emergent technology.

Watson Machine is unique as a Paterson institution because it reflects historical, demographic, and corporate changes that have profoundly shaped the contemporary landscape of the city. Watson is Paterson in microcosm: in the evolution of its corporate structure from family-held local company to international corporation; in the increasing ethnic diversity of its workers; and in the firm's physical importance as a high-quality machine-manufacturing plant in the heart of the city. In a larger context, the 150-year history of Watson Machine mirrors the development of the industrial vernacular in America: in the shift from hydraulic- to internal-combustion-powered plants and, more recently, in the transition from electrical technology to fiber optics. These salient technological shifts can easily be charted in Watson Machine's huge vault, where meticulous hand-inked nineteenth-century plans for bunching machines can be found along with computer-generated transparencies for state-of-the-art switching equipment made to order for today's telecommunications industry. While there are other companies in the United States that have histories of comparable importance, few if any in the Paterson area possess the same combination of rich history, continuity of skills and products, and singular documentary resources. The claim can also be made that Watson Machine is an extraordinary cultural resource because it reflects important facets of the city's character: like Paterson, it has always shown resilience and adaptability when buffeted by the winds of change.10

Finally, the microanalysis of skills within a particular trade holds great promise for the study of community history wherever it might be applied. The working people who informally create the contexts within which goods and services are produced in our industrial society have first-hand knowledge of economic, technical, and cultural experiences that no historical, social, cultural, or psychological abstraction can adequately interpret.

10. Present and past workers at Watson Machine, and others interviewed in the course of the "Working in Paterson" study, frequently commented that these characteristics also apply to them and to others who have endured in Paterson despite difficult circumstances. (Return to Text)

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